Vol. 1 No. 3 2008



BEYOND BOOKS: Film


RONA’S REEL TAKE:


THEY JUST CAN’T GET NO RESPECT!
(afterthoughts on the Writer’s Strike)


By Rona Edwards


Now that the writer’s strike is over, I am reminded of the old joke about the foreign actress (used to be the Polish actress but substitute whomever is considered low on the ethnic totem pole this season). Anyway, this foreign actress comes to Hollywood to make it big and ends up sleeping with the writer! Ha! Ha! The punch line of that joke never ceased to amaze me – because after all, without the writer, there would be no television shows or movies. Yet the last thirty or so years, the writer just can’t get no respect - like a Rodney Dangerfield standup line!

So how did this happen? When did the writer lose the respect of the studios and networks to be treated as if they were dispensable? Why must they always strike? To set the record straight, it wasn’t the producers that the Writers Guild of America was negotiating with this past year, as falsely reported in most media outlets; it was the studios and networks. While their organization is called the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), this is really a throwback to the early days of film when the studios were called “producers” and most day-to-day producers were under contract to those studios. Today, however, it’s a different story, because producers are mostly freelance and are work-for-hires by the studios, just like writers, directors, and actors.

While there is a Producers Guild Of America, of which I am a member, it is merely a guild not a union and does not have real power to bargain with the suits at the studios on behalf of the producer’s own welfare let alone negotiate with their directing, writing, and acting colleagues. Though, the PGA does have some influence on some issues, they are not a union like the Directors, Writers or Screen Actors’ Guilds. There is no new “contract” for them. They do not receive residual monies for repeated showings of their films and televisions shows, nor do they receive anything from the Internet or DVD sales. They may receive some portion of net profits but unless you’re in the upper echelon of producers, you’d be hard-pressed to find that profit money.

Conversely, the film industry’s big three unions, the DGA, WGA and SAG, all have a share in the revenues (though some think they deserve a bigger piece of that). Writers, whether in film, TV or theatre, get royalties and/or residuals for their work whereas an artist who sells a painting, photograph or sculpture gets paid once, no matter how many times their works of art are sold over and over again. (Maybe there should be a Fine Arts Union so those artists can also get paid some sort of royalty every time their work is sold to the highest bidder or if it shows up on the Internet?).

Producers, who usually find the material, develop it with the writer, sell it to a studio or network, see it through to production and deliver it to the studio, work on spec for years before they get a payday. It is when the film is actually produced that they have a payday. I believe strongly that they, too, should get residuals. Producers work just as hard as any other above-the-line element on a film or TV show. But they don’t receive those benefits nor do they receive PH&W fringes, and it doesn’t appear they will anytime soon.

Writers have always been known to be a litigious lot. Usually speaking their minds through their words, they are politically astute, observers of life. The director and actors may realize the vision on the screen but it all starts with the written word.

However, I think that most people in the industry do respect writers. So, why was there all this posturing and name-callling between the union and AMPTP? Writers have always led the way, claiming their piece of the pie. They also are the first ones to get paid on a project. However, writers always seem to be a disgruntled lot – complaining about not getting as much as other unions, always feeling screwed by their last contract negotiations, and holding a grudge until the next contract is up.

Part of the reason, in addition to the lack of respect (which they perceive), is that the film industry is known for brutalizing writers during the development process – a process in which the a screenplay is rewritten over and over again, sometimes by the original writer, and then rewritten again by a new writer who has replaced the original writer because the studio needs a fresh set of eyes to bring the story towards the coveted greenlight.

The studios write the checks, and they are hefty ones – so they do have the final say. Replacing a writer on a project in Hollywood is like changing your clothes to suit your mood. You like all your clothes but sometimes you just want some variety, a new look, and a fresh take. So, is it any wonder that writers feel they don’t get the respect they deserve if they’re so replaceable?

Anyone who is thinking about writing a screenplay will find out soon enough, it’s one of the hardest jobs around. Staring at blank page, or in most cases a blank computer screen, waiting for inspiration to jolt them into the clickity clack of the keyboard track; developing characters that are compelling, that audiences can root for and identify with; creating dialogue that is pithy and fresh; and constructing a story that is gripping and yet accessible, possibly having something important to convey, doesn’t come easy.

Many people watch movies and think, “Oh I can write better than that.” Well, I dare them to try – possibly there will be one in a million who will have a natural talent on their first time out, such as Diablo Cody who wrote her first screenplay, Juno, and is now the toast of Hollywood. But most, and believe me, I read a lot of bad screenplays, won’t see the light of day. It’s not easy to write cinematically. Unlike a book, where a character’s thoughts can be internal threads of consciousness, a movie is action-oriented. We have to see it. A character, through dialogue, conveys their feelings through actions, which then lead the character somewhere.

And usually that somewhere is a journey of great obstacles for which they must overcome in order to achieve their ultimate goals as a character and for the story – a screenwriter must be able to convey all of this with a strong visual sense. It is not that simple. It takes talent and possibly an understanding of acting and directing to write a screenplay. Sometimes it’s an inherent talent, while other times, the craft is learned.

So through this difficult process along with “unfair work and pay ethics” exhibited by the “greedy” corporate studios, one would have to assume that if a writer goes willingly into the land of Hollywood, they must be a masochist. However, one thing that this strike proved beyond a doubt, is that the movie business wouldn’t exist without writers starting the engine that propels all of us on to the industry bandwagon. Writers may not get invited to be on The Today Show to discuss their original idea for the latest hit movie, but they are clearly an important piece of the pie. Ultimately, the art of making movies is a collaborative effort. We are all important pieces of the pie. We are all deserving of respect.

Motion picture/ television producer Rona Edwards also writes music reviews for the Folk Acoustic Music Exchange (FAME) on the net, feature articles for Produced By Magazine. She is and coauthor of I Liked It, Didn’t Love It. (Screenplay Development From The Inside Out), Lone Eagle Publishing. She is also the co-founder of ESE FILM WORKSHOPS ONLINE nurturing filmmaking & screenwriting talent. Check out her blog here.

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